The following banter originates from the Ideas Roadshow ebook, "Saving the World at Business School," which features a lengthy interview with Andrew J. Hoffman, the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and co-author of "Flourishing." Sustainable Industries previously published other excerpts of the Q&A:
A friend of mine has long argued that there is an inverse relationship between the popularity of a word and its meaning. The trendier a word has become, he says, the fuzzier it is, until eventually it’s used everywhere and means nothing.
“Sustainability” seems a perfect example for his theory. Once a word primarily associated with dour environmentalists, it’s hard to think of someone these days who does not avidly chatter away about its merits. Politicians of all stripes routinely vie to outdo one another to demonstrate their sustainability credentials. Corporations now have chief sustainability officers. We are all sustainability advocates now. But what are we actually talking about?
Into this yawning semantic void steps Andy Hoffman. A business school professor who regularly rubs shoulders with major players throughout America’s corporate landscape, Hoffman might seem an odd choice to be the driving force for a fundamental re-interpretation of the green lexicon.
– Howard Burton
Burton: You make an analogy in your book to the issue of smoking and the tobacco industry, that in the case of smoking, for a long a time there was very significant scientific evidence, but it took a while until it caught on and people started recognizing it. Once again, there were powerful interest groups that were in place, and so forth. So is it just a question of waiting again? Or do we actually have to do anything to trigger it?
Hoffman: No, no. Social change isn’t a linear process. It can go through sudden shifts. It needs advocates, it needs social entrepreneurs to try to push it, taking advantage of events as they emerge. Sandy is a critical event. You can look at the two hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. One created change, one didn’t. They are ostensibly similar in that there was a massive storm that whacked a major urban center. One hit a minority, politically disconnected, poor population. One hit a white, politically connected, affluent population. One didn’t have a national spokesperson to bring it on the international stage. The other one had Michael Bloomberg. Right before the presidential election the cover of Businessweek said “It’s global warming, stupid.” It was framed as climate change. People tried to connect Katrina to it, but it didn’t work. This one did.
That is the idea of social entrepreneurs stepping forward, taking advantage of an event. People have mocked Rahm Emanuel, when he said, “Never waste a good crisis.” [pagebreak]But that’s sound social theory: people change in the face of something that disrupts their common beliefs.
Burton: Sure, it’s sound tactics, I mean he probably shouldn’t have said it in such a way that people knew that he said it, but that’s a whole different issue. But here’s what makes me squeamish when I hear you talking about social entrepreneurs using the crisis, leveraging it. As somebody with a scientific disposition, I’m very comfortable with highlighting the scientific consensus that’s been established on global warming. I’m very comfortable about the fact that a clear pattern has emerged based upon all sorts of data about what has happened over a long period of time. By and large there seems to be a clear indication of what’s on the more speculative side, what’s on the more established side, and so forth.
But once people start looking at individual data points, like, “Oh, there was a really big storm! – something must be going on!” then Iget nervous. Because then you face the danger of someone elsecoming along and saying, “Oh, there’s no global warming because it was really cold this winter” , and all that kind of silliness. So Ithink there’s a real danger in misusing the science. I understandwhat people are trying to do: they’re using an event to get attentionand get people to focus on the bigger picture, but isn’t therea risk of jeopardizing the scientific process by doing that?
Hoffman: It depends on how it’s done. Scientists stepped forward right after Sandy and said, “This storm is not climate change. This storm was not created by climate change, but climate change created the conditions by which it was more extreme than expected – the ocean was warmer and so forth.”
Weather is not climate, you’re absolutely right, but what they’re trying to do is get the process going so that people are open to the issue. People respond to what is salient and personal. That’s why polar bears sell and snail darters don’t: it’s charismatic mega-fauna, people have this affinity to it, this reaction to it, it pulls the heartstrings. There are studies that show that people who have been exposed to extreme weather events are more inclined to believe climate change is real because they can accept that the environment can turn nasty on them, that it can become hostile.
Burton: Yes, but I don’t want to convince them that way. I want to convince them by educating them about science.
Hoffman: Well, you start with the data of a weather event, but then you quickly transition and say, “This is not climate change. Climate change is about long-term trends in global mean temperatures. It’s about broad-scale shifts over a longer period of time.” But this is the door opening.
This is a communication effort that a lot of scientists get upsetover, as you are right now, but scientists need to recognize that you might have the right idea, you might have the right answer, but now you’ve got to convince people that it’s the right answer. Scientists who think that “I just need to come up with my right answer and people are going to accept it” and ignore the social and political context of what they’re doing, they’re really missing the point.
[pagebreak]Climate change really did not become a contested issue until Kyoto started to come into form, when it started to threaten some very powerful economic and political interests. They were able to mobilize in order to get this movement to say, “No, it’s not happening,” because in the business parlance, where I’m coming from, I describe climate change as a market shift. In a market shift you’re going to have winners and losers and the losers will resist the market shift – that’s what we’re watching right now. And they’re funding efforts to debunk the science: that’s a critical part of the debate in the United States.
Burton: I completely agree that you can’t just say, “Oh well, we’re just going to present scientific data and if these people are scientifically illiterate then to hell with them.” And, in fact, I’ve been angered by many of the global warming advocates for a long period of time because there’s a lot of rhetoric from people who are associating themselves with science who are throwing stuff out that isn’t necessarily true, or they’re using all sorts of ad hominem attacks: “Well we’re a part of the educated elite, we’re the scientific guys so we understand these things and anybody who doesn’t is just some sort of knuckle dragging cretin who clearly doesn’t know anything and should be ignored.” And not only is that counter-productive towards moving forwards constructively, but sometimes it’s doing more of a disservice to science because you’re in fact framing things incorrectly, you’re stating all sorts of untruths.
Hoffman: But that’s what happens when any kind of scientific issue gets thrown into the public: different people take up the charge and become associated with it. Right now the environmental movement has been the leading force in climate change and some have gone beyond where they should, as the other side has gone beyond where it should. How do we get credible scientific information into the public in a way that doesn’t get distorted by the political aims of those who are purporting it or rejecting it? There’s the question.
Burton: So how do we? What do we do?
Hoffman: Well, I would like to see more scientists getting involved in the debates and speak for themselves: present the evidence in a way that’s carefully constructed. That’s a conversation that’s taking place in the Academy right now: Roger Pielke wrote a book called “The Honest Broker.” It’s a really nice book on what is the role of the academic in policy debates. He talks about the ‘honest broker’ as somebody who brings forward and lays out all the work that’s out there, letting the social and political process work based on that. Some people agree with that and some people don’t. Some people think that scientists should come out say, “Let’s put some percentages on this: here’s what the science tells us, here’s the answer. We’re not going to confuse things with all the other distractions from the consensus statement.”
It’s still being worked out how scientists can communicate, but we need to, because we live in an increasingly technological age and we’re in a functioning democracy. People are voting on things like nuclear power, GMOs, nanotech, health care, gun control: issues that require good data and good analysis. How we get that data and analysis and how we bring it into the public debate in a serious way, we need to figure that out.
Burton: But when I hear you talk about getting more scientists involved, my 'skeptometer' starts going up.
Burton: Well, I can’t help wondering, who’s going to listen … to the passionate, articulate, well-motivated scientists? [pagebreak]The people who are already predisposed to doing so. But the people I’m worried about connecting with are those you were mentioning a minute ago: the people who might be absorbing a different sort of rhetoric, the ones who might be insecure for whatever reason, the ones who might position, perhaps falsely, this idea of global warming or emerging technology as winners and losers in the market and be naturally afraid that they might be one of the losers. In other words, I’m concerned about broadening the message to go well beyond the already converted. I get this sense that having more scientists get up and talk just adds to the same old choir. I’m wondering how you can really move out and foster broader debate with people who might have very different views, and my sense is that some of your work is speaking exactly to that. But getting another bushel of people from the National Academy of Sciences out there? I’m not convinced that that, in and of itself, is going to do anything.
Hoffman: Well, what I’m saying in my work is that the spokesmen that people will respond to are those who are a part of their referent group, their cultural community, their tribe. An evangelical is going to listen to an evangelical more than he may listen to the National Academies of Sciences, so we need more evangelicals speaking on this issue. We need business people. We need politicians. We need people from groups that people trust, and then we need it at the local level. People need to hear it at the Kiwanis Club, in the golf leagues, at the town hall. It has to be not just a top-down movement, which it has been largely right now, but a bottom-up one.
That’s where I think Bill McKibben has actually been able to do something. He has created this grassroots movement. I have questions about his endgame, but he’s been able to create a constituency around this issue: young people. He’s been able to turn it into an issue of social equity: your world is going to be damaged by what we’re doing now and you’re going to have to live with it. He’s been able to mobilize. But I’d like to see people making new connections: that anglers would say, “You know what, this is going to ruin the habitat for the environment that I enjoy,” or others would say, “Holy smokes, Michigan just lost 90 percent of their cherry crop last year because of some very strange weather. Scientists are saying it’s climate change…this is bad.” If they start to connect things to their own personal interests, then you’ll get change. Then you’llget people moving on it.
Burton: This is something that has long confused me. There are an awful lot of people who are hunters and fisherman who might statistically be associated with the Republican Party, but who you’d think would naturally be extremely keen environmentalists. [pagebreak]I mean, these people live in a world where their natural environment plays a much more preeminent role than your average Democratic guy in Manhattan.
So it’s a bit confusing to me that environmental issues get portrayed as these hip, young, progressive urban, leftist people on one side versus these skeptical, retrograde old country geezers. I mean, you’d expect that it would be those who live directly with the environment, who have an intimate relationship with it, who would be the most passionate about protecting it. It’s perplexing to me.
Hoffman: Well, we have to be careful of these broad categories. Because it’s not all Republicans, it’s not all Democrats, and if we rely on these stereotypes too much it starts becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy: “If you’re a Republican you must not believe in climate change.” That doesn’t work. There are plenty of instances of anglers and hunters advocatingvery strongly for habitat protection while working alongside environmental groups. It’s not an uncommon alliance.
Slideshow photo by ortizmj12.